Kuntrell Jackson. Courtesy: Arkansas Department of Correction.

“A throwaway person.” That’s how Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg characterized the societal status of a 14-year-old who is sentenced to life without parole, as oral arguments in Jackson v. Hobbs wound down on Tuesday. She was responding to the claim by Little Rock Assistant Attorney General Kent Holt, representing the Arkansas Department of Corrections, that condemning a teenager to die in prison for murder “reinforces the sanctity of human life.”

“You say the sanctity of human life,” Ginsburg pushed back, “but you’re dealing with a 14-year-old being sentenced to life in prison, so he will die in prison without any hope.” In other words, aren’t kids’ lives still worth something even when they’ve committed a grievous wrong?

This was the fundamental question before the Court as it heard arguments in Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, which were argued back-to-back. Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson believes they are; representing defendants in both cases, he stressed that teenagers are works in progress, and cannot possibly be judged in the same way as adults. Not only does science back this up—teenagers’ brains are still developing, particularly the parts that affect judgement and impulse—the Court itself has concluded the same thing in such cases as Roper v. Simmons, which struck down the death penalty for children under eighteen on Eighth Amendment grounds. “What this Court has said is that children are uniquely more than their worst act,” Stevenson argued.

Holt disagreed with Ginsberg that sentencing a teenager to life without parole necessarily robs them of “hope,” offering that the prisoner in question “has made efforts to obtain his GED” and “has taken anger management classes,” while saying nothing about how such things might meaningfully serve him when he has no chance of release—or even review by a parole board.

The prisoner in question is no longer a child. Sentenced in 2003, the now 26-year-old Kuntrell Jackson was convicted of felony murder and aggravated robbery for a 1999 crime that occurred when he was just 14. Now living in a maximum security prison in Tucker, Arkansas, Jackson did not pull the trigger that led to the victim’s death. Nor was there evidence that he planned for—or even anticipated—that a murder would occur. Rather, Jackson, his fourteen year-old cousin, and a 15-year-old friend, Derrick Shields, decided while hanging out in the Chickasaw Courts housing projects in the town of Blytheville, Arkansas, that they would rob a video store. Shields was carrying a sawed-off shotgun and killed store clerk Laurie Troup when she refused to give him the money in the cash register.

Jackson was tried as an adult and given life without parole, the same sentence given to Shields. Even if he did not plan for a murder to occur, the state concluded, the fact that Jackson knew Shields had a gun made him guilty of “reckless indifference” to human life. In Arkansas, as in several states, life without parole is a mandatory sentence for such felony murder cases. This meant that Jackson’s age, lack of maturity or potential for rehabilitation could not be considered, even if the judge had wanted to.

As with capital cases where defendants are sentenced to death for an indirect role in a murder, some Americans might be surprised to learn that such a young teenager, indirectly involved in a homicide, could face so permanent a sentence. Indeed, the United States is virtually unique in the world in sentencing such children to die in prison, a fact that has much to do with states’ mandatory sentencing statutes and laws passed in the 1980s and ’90s allowing children to be tried as adults—a trend that was largely rooted in racist (and since discredited) rhetoric about juvenile “superpredators.” It is no coincidence that 70 percent of the prisoners serving life without parole sentences today for crimes committed at 13 or 14 are youth of color.

Mandatory sentencing was a constant theme throughout Tuesday’s oral arguments. The fact that the vast majority of teenagers sentenced to life without parole are sentenced under such statutes seemed to trouble Justice Kennedy, who asked: “Just as the death penalty is unique for anyone and therefore requires mitigating elements, isn’t life without parole special enough for an adolescent that you have to let him at least make any mitigating arguments he wants?”

And Justice Breyer, suggesting that a person who “aided” a homicide is less culpable than a person who actually committed it, asked, “What is the argument for not allowing a judge or a jury, at least to think about that question, before…imposing mandatory life without parole?”

One outcome in Miller and Jackson, which will be decided by early summer, could be that the Supreme Court will strike down all mandatory sentences of life without parole on juveniles—which would have a major impact on sentencing practices across the country. Another possibility is that the justices will strike down life without parole for children 14 and younger, given in part their rarity (only seventy-nine such prisoners exist)

But as Stevenson argued, the Court’s own legal logic should inform a broader ruling, striking down life without parole sentences for all offenders under the age of 18, regardless of their crime. In Roper, after all, the Court ruled that “it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult,” even in murder cases, partly because “the signature qualities of youth are transient; as individuals mature, the impetuousness and recklessness that may dominate in younger years can subside.” And in Graham v. Florida, the precursor to Jackson and Miller, the Court used the similar logic to rule that juveniles’ comparative lack of judgement should preclude them from being sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes. 

But as Stevenson repeatedly reminded the Court, “these deficits in judgment are not crime-specific. The person who intends to kill doesn’t actually have any better judgment, any more character, any more maturity, any more impulse control than the person who doesn’t.”

For the attorneys representing the states, the best defense for tossing kids in prison and throwing away the key comes back to the crime. Unlike in Jackson, the defendant in Miller did commit a (grisly) homicide, beating a man with a bat and setting fire to his trailer. “Society’s primary goal here…is expressing the retributive judgment about the wrongfulness of murder,” argued John Neiman, representing Alabama. (And anyway, remarked Justice Scalia glibly, “I thought that modern penology has abandoned that rehabilitation thing.”)

So which is more important? The nature of the crime? Or the nature of juveniles? The Court’s decision will hinge on this question. As attorney David L. Hudson wrote in a legal analysis: "Ultimately, this case may come down to which ‘difference’ is more important—death or children."

For more on Miller and Jackson, see “Why Life Without Parole Is Wrong For Juveniles,” by Randy Hertz.